Constructive Criticism: A Tool for Improvement

Article excerpt

Constructive criticism is defined as helpful suggestions with socio-emotional implications. A rationale for the giving of and the reception of constructive criticism are offered. Critics and critical recipients are encouraged to work as a team; both responsible, in their own way, for how criticism is received and interpreted. Suggestions for critics on how to usefully phrase criticism and suggestions for receivers on how to demonstrate appropriate interpretation of criticism are offered.

All of us render judgments about others' beliefs, values, and behaviors. Some of our judgments are well thought out; yet, others are more spontaneously offered. At times, judgments are made [not always intentionally] to belittle or demean receivers. Other judgments seem rendered to make critics appear superior or powerful rather than to support or enhance receivers.

Constructive criticism is judgement given for the purposes of: (a) offering receivers external views of their performance to compare with self oriented views of their work; (b) helping the receiver recognize or interpret ways to improve past performances and/or ways to improve on future attempts; (c) demonstrating to receivers that their efforts merit judgment [as opposed to being ignored or distorted]; (4) showing genuine interest and appreciation for a receiver's effort; and (5) being encouraging, affirming, and supportive for the purpose of building confidence.

An example of this kind of constructive criticism came from a colleague whom I asked to review a first draft of this essay. My colleague commented: "... The ideas discussed in the essay seem useful to our students. I would suggest some further specific examples as given [in a specific essay section]." This suggestion pointed out a potential deficiency while adding a perceived positive view of the work. A less constructive criticism of the writing could have been phrased: "You don't use enough examples."

While the content dimension of constructive criticism is vitally important, context, real or attributed motives for criticism, and timing also carry considerable weight. Critics need to carefully consider judgment context. By offering assessments publicly, in too loud or harsh a voice, in a condescending tone, or inappropriately juxtaposed with non-related messages, critics may diminish, contradict, or obfuscate well meant criticism. Constructively offered criticism, to be more likely interpreted positively by receivers, must be produced in a voice that conveys genuineness and sincerity or it likely will fail and be interpreted as insincere and not genuine. Like all our messages, criticism needs to be prudently timed. Criticism given tardily, prematurely, or too rapidly can predictably lessen a receiver's appreciation for the judgment.

My dissertation advisor was a master critic. He managed to phrase most positive comments by suggesting they were personal attributes while phrasing work that needed improvement as work qualities rather than author characteristics. He phrased his comments as means to improve both the immediate product [my dissertation] and my long term writing and research skills. His criticism was specific [detailed] rather than general or vague. Rather than suggesting I "use fewer prepositional phrases," he might comment: "Have you considered the benefit to readers of being more direct in your writing?" Perceived shortcomings in my work were relayed to me privately; they were offered as suggestions rather than demands and were offered in an encouraging tone of voice. …